I have a friend who is a massive lover of dogs. He owns a fine collection of beautiful breeds including Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shetland Sheepdogs and of course, everyone’s favourite: Golden Retrievers. He also runs a training centre for dogs, where he and his staff teach the animals how to sit, fetch and how to let you know when they need to take a call of nature. Another section of his business involves training different breeds for various dog shows, including the world famous Crufts show in England, which is held annually. He and his team have amassed an array of medals and trophies, all finely displayed at his home, by getting his dogs to look pretty and perform various tricks and tasks. His dogs jump through hoops, climb up platforms, run through tunnels, catch tennis balls, jump over hurdles and meander speedily around obstacles to get those shiny objects of recognition that are finely displayed for all and sundry to see. Needless to say, my friend was very proud of his dogs and what he saw as his achievements.
As I was preparing to write this post, I was thinking about the dynamic that my friend represents. He was incredibly proud of all of those trophies and medals that were glistening brightly in the many display cabinets at his home. However, his dogs couldn’t give two hoots about those trophies and medals; all they wanted was food, water and some attention to make them happy.
This short description of my friend’s activities demonstrates an essential facet of the human condition, which I have found to be true for adults and children alike: we all want to feel important. This is a feature unique to humans, and it’s a characteristic that distinguishes us from animals.
Every high school student you will encounter, no matter what their domestic situation is or how much peer pressure they are under, craves a sense of personal importance just like you and I do. It’s the reason why we wear posh designer labels, why we brag about our new car or house on social media and why we beautify images of ourselves using various apps on our smart phones. It’s also the reason why a lot of young people turn to drugs, join gangs and get involved in thug culture. The trick with students is to make sure that they are receiving their validation; their sense of importance, from positive sources.
For our students, the best way that we can make them feel empowered and important in a positive way is by enacting the following steps:
- Find out what the strengths, hobbies and interests of each of your students are: This can be daunting, as you’ve probably got a whole gaggle of students that you teach and it’s hard to remember everything about everyone. If you have too, buy a special notebook and write down snippets of information that you pick up. Is Thomas exhibiting his artwork at a local gallery this weekend? Write it down. Does Cassandra love fashion design and magazines like Cosmopolitan? Write it down. Did Jason score a goal at lunchtime football? Write it down.
- Act on the information you have gathered: Use the information to engage your students in their lessons. If the output of a task or project is open to negotiation, then suggest a way for a particular student to produce that output in a way that is personal to them. Does Damon like boxing? Get him to create an animation or movie of a boxing match in which each boxer represents one side of the debate. They can say counter phrases whilst they box, and the winner will represent the argument that Damon agrees with the most. When doing group work, assign roles to each student based on their strengths, and make it clear why you have chosen each student for each role. I once had a student who was famous for being confrontational, and he was the figment of every teacher’s worst nightmare in that school. However, I noticed quickly that he was very good at art, so I made him the class ‘art director’, where his job was to check each student’s presentation. He loved the positive attention, and he became my most compliant and hard-working student. I also took a special interest in him by going along to the art room to look at his work, and view his pieces in a local art gallery. This extra effort on my part really paid off, and other subject teachers were amazed at the change they saw in him.
- Always turn a negative into a positive: Have you just taught a student who ‘played up’ or had a ‘tantrum’? Has one of your students just had a ‘bad day’? Make a special note of this, sit down with the student, and offer your help and guidance. Focus on the positives of this situation, and what the student did well. Perhaps this time the student didn’t swear – now that’s a positive and a step in the right direction. Maybe your student was frustrated because they couldn’t quite make their work ‘perfect’ – brilliant, this shows a desire to do well and try your best. Tell the student how pleased you are that they care about their work so much, and offer more time to get it done if needs be. Maybe another student annoyed the kid who played up – offer a number of solutions to the student such as a seating plan and the chance to have a ‘time out’. Get the student to reflect on solutions, and praise them for being reflective and proactive in wanting to move forwards, and not backwards.
- Focus on the long-term goals of the student: Some students are completely unsure of what they want to do in life right the way up to age 18, when they’re about to start out at university. Others take time to develop their goals as they mature through high school and still others are very sure what they want from life since their first day in Year 7. Whatever the situation may be, you must remind your students that there’s a bright and happy light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train! Talk regularly with your students about their goals, ambitions and strengths, and constantly make them feel like they can achieve those goals by being supportive and enthusiastic for them. When students can see that there is a real purpose to school life; that all of these ‘pointless lessons’ can actually make your dreams come true, they tend to work harder. However, you, as a teacher, need to constantly reinforce this and it can take some time and effort before positive progression is seen. Stay strong, have faith, and I guarantee that your efforts will pay massive dividends!
- Use rewards more than sanctions, and make them sincere: When a student accomplishes something, and is then rewarded for this accomplishment, this reinforces the positive behaviour/process that lead to the outcome. However, the extent to which this reinforcement is maximized depends upon the depth, relevance and sincerity of the feedback given to the student. We’re all so very busy, and it can really tempting to just sign that house point box in the student’s planner, or hand out that merit sticker, with little conversation afterwards. However; if we’re going to be effective behaviour managers, then we need to spend more time giving sincere and relevant feedback to our students that focuses on the effort/process that went into the work or action that was produced. Always sit down with your students, especially those who have a reputation for being disruptive, and talk with them about their accomplishments. Tell the student how happy you are, and give a good reason (e.g. “I was so pleased that you took the time to draw large, labeled diagrams in this work. You also asked lots of questions, and you tried your best to avoid distractions”). This is actually quite simple when we think about it: all we’re trying to do is reinforce the behaviour that we want to see repeated again in the future.
Making your students feel important, or valued, is probably the most important factor in ensuring that you have a positive relationship with them (and, hence, lessons in which behaviour is good). One of the most memorable examples of this takes me back to first teaching post in Thailand, when I was teaching Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) to a group of Year 8 students. At that time, I was taking the students through the Expect Respect™ programme, and we were covering themes that centred around domestic abuse and neglect. At the end of my first lesson with this group, a very shy and withdrawn young girl spoke with me privately and said that she enjoyed the lesson because it made her reflect on what was happening in her home environment. She then revealed to me something which almost shocked me to a frail state of nervousness as a young teacher – she told me she was self-harming, and she shown me the scars on her arms.
The first thing I did at that moment was talk about the positives of this situation, and I praised her for having the courage to speak to someone. I asked her what she thought of the lesson, and she said that she could empathise with the people involved in the scenarios we had discussed. I said that that was a brilliant quality to have, and that she could use this in her career when she leaves school. She left with a very bright smile on her face, and I could tell that she felt empowered. I saw her domestic situation as a positive, because it gave her the experience she needed to help other people in similar situations.
After our conversation, I referred her to our school counselor who worked with her twice a week to talk about what she was going through and how to move forward. She told her counselor how she felt so refreshed by her conversation with me, and how she felt that she could be a counselor too!
As time went by, I constantly reinforced my belief and professional interest in this student. When we covered career clusters in later PSHE lessons, she was keen to talk about how she wanted to be a person who cared for, and helped, others. She talked boldly about her plans to make people happy, and she would allude to her life experiences as being valuable in making her a strong person. Prior to this transformation, this young lady was famous for crying in class, andwould often not take part in group activities. My belief in her, along with the help provided by other staff members, transformed her into a self-confident, determined person.
I am not ashamed to say that I was rather tearful when she got accepted into university to study occupational therapy five years later. She is now a professional, mature and empowered young woman who has a dream and a mission to help the people she comes across in her day-to-day life. I must admit, I can’t take all of the credit for this, as many individuals in the school worked with her to empower her to be bold enough to face life’s setbacks and move forward. However, I like to think that that first conversation she had with me all of those years ago was the spark that set the forest fire of her ambition raging through the wilderness of her life.